Photo caption: Just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Blugold Marching Band were offered the chance to play a tour on a New Zealand cruise ship, along with performances in Australia. (Submitted photo)
Neuroscientists and educators often talk about the strong connections between playing a musical instrument and an aptitude for mathematics.
Leah Koepke, who will graduate this month from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a degree in mathematics, knows exactly what they’re talking about.
“I’m one of six kids, and we all played piano; I started when I was 4,” says Koepke, a native of Freedom, who also completed a minor in piano performance and was a drummer in the Blugold Marching Band for four years. “There was always a lot of music in our household.”
In exploring options at the majors fair as a first-year student, one thing stood out about mathematics and ultimately sold her on the degree plan — flexibility.
“I’ve learned through my collaborative research, my summer internship and from faculty all along that I will be qualified to work in so many different fields, to change roles and titles, and find interesting jobs pretty much anywhere with a mathematics education — every industry uses math in some way,” Koepke says.
Combining her skills and making connections
Although Koepke was not certain of her academic path when she came to UW-Eau Claire, being part of the Blugold Marching Band was always her plan. She arrived on campus earlier than most students, in mid-August when the marching band begins rehearsals. That two weeks, she says, allowed her to create her circle of people that rooted her on campus before classes even began.
“That was a huge advantage for me, to already have a solid group of friends — it made the start of school and the whole college transition a lot easier,” says Koepke, who still counts her earliest band connections among her best friends.
Playing the drums in the band for four seasons, Koepke also used the opportunity to build leadership skills, serving her junior and senior seasons as section leader for the toms drum line.
“With such a diverse group, different personalities and majors in the section, it was important to learn to use the diversity to reach our common goals in band and play music together,” Koepke says.
Koepke also found a way to build her mathematics research skills through her love of music, conducting a research project examining the correlation between the mathematical and musical complexity of composition.
“As part of a research methods class, my research partner and I were looking for connections between what one hears in dissonance and what we see mathematically between pitches,” Koepke says. “We concluded that hearing dissonance corresponds with a higher dissonance score.”
Koepke’s second research project involved examining radon gas levels present in Wisconsin homes, a process involving analysis of previously collected DNR data. Radon is a colorless and odorless gas that seeps into homes through the soil and is known to cause lung cancer.
Along with her research mentor, Dr. Mohammad Aziz, an associate professor of mathematics, Koepke determined the areas of the state with the highest levels of radon, which is the southern part of Wisconsin. The study has been submitted for publication and was presented at the 2020 virtual Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (CERCA) at UW-Eau Claire.
“I was motivated to do this project because it allowed me to see closely inside a career path that utilizes math,” Koepke said. “It was eye-opening for me, and responding to questions during CERCA was also a good experience.”
A second opportunity to use mathematics in a workplace environment was Koepke’s 2020 summer internship with the National Security Agency (NSA) in Maryland. She learned about the internship through Dr. Christopher Davis, an associate professor of mathematics, who Koepke says was familiar with her desire to explore math-related careers.
One of five summer interns working with different branches of the agency, Koepke was assigned a project in the cybersecurity branch. She was asked to analyze data about various NSA subcontractors and rank the list in terms of the overall security risk each posed.
“I learned a lot, and it was really cool to be a part of work that we know has such a high purpose,” Koepke says. “Working in a large corporate organization, I think it would be hard to always see the endgame and know your work is making a difference.”
Using her own skills to help fellow students
Koepke says that of all the high-impact practices she took part in as a Blugold, it was tutoring in the Mathematics Tutoring Hub that proved to be most personally rewarding. A math tutor since she was a first-year student, Koepke feels strongly that using her math skills to help others has been a learning experience that is a two-way street.
“What I like about it is the way that it shows us how everyone has their own strengths and things they are good at — nobody is strong in everything,” Koepke says. “I happen to have strong skills in math, but the person I’m helping with math might be an excellent writer. I am not.
“Everyone has something to offer in helping someone else. It’s important for students like me to have a chance to use what we’re learning outside of ourselves — it’s not just about what I personally get out of my degree, my own individual academic success. Tutoring has been a reminder for me that we can use our knowledge to also help others succeed.”
Koepke’s generous spirit and many talents are appreciated by fellow students and faculty, including Dr. Mckenzie West, an assistant professor of mathematics who is pleased to see Koepke recognized as an outstanding graduate.
“Since we met in 2019, Leah has shown greatness as both a mathematician and as an engaged member of the UWEC community,” West says. “Leah's classmates recognize her for both her mathematical skill and positive attitude in and out of the classroom.”
Koepke has accepted a position as a catastrophe modeling analyst with global risk management agency Guy Carpenter & Co. LLC, and will begin working in their Minneapolis office in May.